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The Art of the Party: An Interview with David Stark

Jun 4, 2013

by Karen Brown

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

David Stark is a renowned New York-based event producer who creates spectacular events for celebrity clients including Beyoncé, Martha Stewart, and Jon Stewart; major corporations such as Condé Nast; and galas for not-for-profit organizations including The Museum of Modern Art and The Metropolitan Opera. His latest book, The Art of the Party, features unexpected designs often created from sustainable, industrial, or low-cost materials.

Karen: You are well known for using everyday and mundane materials, like colored pencils, newspapers, acorns, or old books. What kind of thinking leads you to your materials, and what’s the funkiest thing you’ve ever used?

David: Probably the funkiest thing was at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards. We saved a full year of paper waste from my office and the museum, and we used it to make a topiary garden inspired by Versailles. It raised questions like, “What does green really mean?” “How much waste is actually created by an institution?” and “What inventiveness can come out of that?”

I consider the whole world of possibilities as my toolbox. I started out just working with flowers. But flowers were not always the appropriate tool, and that’s when I started looking at everything else as an option.

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Colored pencils and Post-it pads light up this fundraiser for the Tate Museum.

Karen: Your materials become part of the “layers of detail” you develop as you design a party. What goes into those layers?

David: Layers of detail have to do with meaning. I add details not because they are oddball or strange, but because they have a conceptual connection to what the evening is about. For example, at the Met Opera, the layers were inspired by the Opera’s set design. Layers are about finding meaning, not about decorating. We are not just decorating a space or enhancing a room frivolously.

Karen: In the book you mention a client who wanted to go so far as to apply the event motif to the toilet paper. How do you tell someone when to stop?

David: When to stop is a personal judgment call. It’s hard to make an across-the-board rule on that. I think you have to ask, “What is essential to tell the story?” Anything beyond that is an affectation.

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A transformation from floor to ceiling for the American Associates of the National Theater.

Karen: Tell us a little about how you approach a party space, including how you plan the vertical space from floor to ceiling. You fill a vertical space like no one else.

David: I am one of those people who believes that once you fill a room with people — whether it’s 200, 800, or however many — what you really see is what is above people’s heads. There are things that are intimate and that you see upon close inspection, but the big sweeping elements always come from a distance and above.

When I plan, I think the way an architect plans a building. I really set out in the most boring of ways. I think about the program and what has to happen at the event. Are there rectangular tables for dinner, or a buffet, or a dance floor? I can’t think at all about what it looks like until I think about how it fits. I often say to my clients, “Let’s create the foundation and build the house before we pick out the sofa.”

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Two 13-foot tall topiary chickens let arriving guests know that the event will be special and fun.

Karen: How do you select the artisans, prop designers, and specialists you work with?

David: The staff and I are the artisans who make everything that we do. I don’t curate other’s people’s work.

Karen: Amazing. How big is your staff?

David: We have 32 people who work full time.

Karen: Many of us think of parties as fun and frivolous, but you say parties must also have substance. What do you mean?

David: I think celebrating the milestones of one’s life is very serious business. Because I do a cross-section of private events, corporate events, and institutional events, there are goals beyond just having fun. You might think a wedding is very straightforward, and it’s about getting married. But if the couples are from different cultures, then the wedding could be about introducing the guests to those cultures. Fundraisers are about raising money, but the event can also cultivate a new group of followers, or educate.

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Unicorns race from cover to cover at a Bat Mitzvah with a book theme.

Karen: Weddings are a huge area of interest on Etsy. Let’s say you are planning a wedding with a completely blank canvas — just a nondescript hotel ballroom or a generic white tent. Where do you begin?

David: When I begin, I look at three things:

First, I work with my client to see what they love. What’s the vibe they’re after? Are they thinking about a big formal wedding in the city, or a farm with a barn in the distance? I recommend they start “mood boards” and pull photographs of things that inspire them. Start to paint a picture of what you’re attracted to: the vibe, the color story, the tone, and tenor.

The second part is the venue. Are you in a loft, a ballroom, or a barn? There are definitely settings that are about total transformations, and other times it’s all about working with what is unique and memorable about a space.

The third thing is the season. You know if you’re getting dressed in the morning and it’s 98 degrees, you might wear a tank top and shorts; if it’s 18 degrees you are in a winter coat and scarf. Both scenarios are right. For an event, it’s the same thing: you need to consider the occasion and what is appropriate and endemic to the season.

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An ordinary white tent is made to resemble a nearby farmhouse interior with wallpaper, moldings, and chandeliers.

Karen: Let’s say I am planning the opposite of a big event — just an intimate birthday dinner for a dozen people at home, with no real budget. What could I do to make it Starkishly wonderful?

David: It starts with every single choice that you make. The invitation for a party of 12 establishes that it will be a special evening. The idea that you went to the trouble to use the mail, that you took time and energy, planned a menu, made place cards, a centerpiece — it shows your guests you want them to be there. The beauty of working on an intimate scale is that you can make choices that wouldn’t be possible at a big event. You could take vintage bottles that you have collected for years and years and arrange them down the center of the table and light them up like stained glass. Not just the same old, same old.

Karen: If there were a superhero for parties — and that might just be you —what would his superpowers be?

David: He would make clean-up happen with the blink an eye.

Click through this slideshow for a few of David’s favorite party picks on Etsy.

  • Butterfly Place Cards

    "Place cards should not be overlooked, even for small affairs. They are the perfect way for you to orchestrate new friendships and conversation, and an opportunity to have a little fun."
  • 1890s- 1940s Group of 20 Embossed Cobalt Glass Medicine Bottles

    "Some of the vintage sellers have gotten wise to us event planner types. They sell readymade collections of bottles, and it is a great resource for an easy centerpiece."
  • Cube Magnet

    "My Flower Meadow makes floral design fresh with their chic and modern vases. Love these for the fridge."
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All photos courtesy of David Stark.

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1890s- 1940s Group of 20 Embossed Cobalt Blue Glass Medicine Bottles &  Jars No. 4
1890s- 1940s Group of 20 Embossed Cobalt Blue Glass Medicine Bottles & Jars No. 4
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cube magnet
cube magnet
$19.16 USD

3 Featured Comments

  • abenakcreation

    Virpi Irene Bendandi from ABenakCreation said 5 years ago Featured

    I think we can all apply these tips, on a smaller scale, to the events we host. This article inspired me to think out of the ordinary and let my creativity flow with any event, big or small, generous budget or no budget. It made me want to create something special for my son's 17th birthday next week!

  • CharmingShopLove

    Marissa Howes from CharmingShopLove said 5 years ago Featured

    Wow, what amazing party themes! I wish I could attend such a magical and detailed event! This was truly inspiring. I love seeing people do what they love. It really just radiates through the photographs of the events and right through the interview too. Thanks for sharing!

  • dianatam1

    diana tam from DianaTamCollection said 5 years ago Featured

    I live in Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, and we have to make our own fun when we entertain, you are an inspiration with your wonderful inventive moods for your events. Thank you

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